I met Ana Mardoll via mutual friends on Twitter, and it was only quite by chance that I noticed she’s an author with a new book out! Which was perfect timing for inclusion in my season celebrating indie writers.
“Rose, can you tilt your head for me, please?” The pale young woman who has been assigned to braid my hair whispers the words, her voice so soft that I can barely hear her over the crash of hail that pounds the mansion roof and sends icy pellets skittering noisily across the marble floor.
Obediently, I lean forward to facilitate her task. Her nimble fingers continue their work, twisting and looping my long pink hair into the elaborate style that our mistress has commanded for tonight’s festivities. I wonder numbly how many more hours my grooming will take; we’ve been at this since my morning bath. I’m curious also to know if this girl is as bored with braiding my hair as I am wtih sitting motionless. Not that either of us would dream of complaining; the May Queen’s temper is lethal, and there are far worse assignments to be handed out.
Rose and Lavender are enslaved by the May Queen, just two of many humans who have been abducted and taken to the faery world, altered to play parts in the cruel entertainments devised by the faeries. They don’t remember their previous lives on Earth, but tiny fragments of memory — and a huge amount of willpower — might just be enough to get them home.
Between Lavender’s bold planning and Rose’s knowledge, they manage to make their escape. Arriving Earthside isn’t the end of their problems, though. It doesn’t bring the memories back. And dangerous portals to the faery world keep opening up around them.
Our narrator, Rose, has more trouble than most adjusting back to Earthside life. The May Queen’s enchantments have given her lips a poison that kills on contact, meaning she’s forced to deny herself any of the normal touches of human affection. Not only that, but she’s afflicted with guilt, her memories haunted by every man she killed with a kiss in the faery world.
I grabbed Poison Kiss on a bit of a whim, not really knowing what to expect other than that it sounded fun. Little did I know that this book would edge at the last minute into my favourite books of the past year. This puts it in company with other beautifully optimistic fantasies such as Sorcerer to the Crown and Uprooted and Chasing Ravens, which is probably no coincidence, because if there’s one thing these books have in common it’s protagonists you’d be happy to know in person, and friendships so strong and supportive that even impossible odds feel beatable.
The community of “altereds”, those who’ve escaped from faeries, is one of the most wonderful things about this book. Isolated by amnesia from their previous families, and alone in a world that wouldn’t believe their stories, there is a natural shared understanding between the altered, but it goes much further than that. The community welcomes everyone — even those, like Rose, whose very nature is dangerous. And lacking the context of their previous lives, everyone is free to reinvent without the pressure of expectation — one result of which is that being openly genderfluid or trans is quite normal. There’s a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, many characters are gay or bi or poly, and mental illness is accepted without stigma. It is, in short, just the kind of society I’d choose to be a part of.
This isn’t just a backdrop, though. The community dynamic is central to the narrative. Due to a combination of personal characteristics and faery manipulations, everyone has their own special skills, strengths, and weaknesses — something which becomes ever more important as the faery threat encroaches on the mundane world. Even Rose’s fatal kisses might prove useful in a pinch, if she can bring herself to cause deliberate harm.
And then there’s the romance. Clarent, a man made of silver, has spent most of his time in faery as a magical sword — and after she rescues him, Rose falls for him hard. It doesn’t help that he kissed her, once, by accident, and seems to be immune to her poison. She sees a growing attraction between Clarent and Lavender, however, and resolves to keep herself — and her poisonous lips — out of their way. The way the relationship between the three of them unfolds is both believable and utterly adorable.
With such a broad, diverse community, and a well-developed fantasy world to build on, I’m delighted to hear that there are going to be more books in this series.